Monday, November 2, 2015

The Pointillism of Science

I’ve long been fascinated by the work of the post-Impressionist Georges Seurat, most famous for Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Grande Jatte, which was unveiled in 1886. 

Sunday Afternoon on the Isle de Grande Jatte.
Georges Seurat, 1886.

I consider Seurat my favourite of the nineteenth-century French painters, if not of all time (but I like Rembrandt van Rijn almost as much). Though the subject-matter of Seurat’s works is antique, his technique renders them strangely contemporary in appearance. 

Recently, I watched a short docudrama with actors portraying Seurat and his contemporaries, Seurat and the Realm of Light, produced by the French arm of the National Film Board of Canada in 1992.  

In this, the painter’s so-called pointillism is described by a narrator as “a technique which consists of painting juxtaposed points of pure colour. Seen from afar these small dabs of pure colour blend together optically in one’s eye, become a homogenous image. A visionary artist, Seurat anticipated by half a century modern techniques of colour division, used in photo composition, television, and digital images.” 

In fact, though, the term “pointillism” is a misnomer. It is more accurately called “divisionism”, as Seurat did not compose the Sunday Afternoon and other works by placing dots of paint on the canvass, as is usually believed. 

Instead, Seurat used tiny strokes of the brush to achieve a divisionist effect (as seen in the detail of Sunday Afternoon below). 

Detail from Sunday Afternoon on the Isle du Grande Jatte.

Divisionism in fact came out of Seurat’s ambition to create a science of art. The NFB film quotes him: “I dream of a science of painting, which can be taught, like music, a colour scale than can translate the effects of light. ... I apply minute dabs of colour, which are blended optically in the eye, and which translate the shimmering effects of light, a mysterious light that reveals textures, curves, volumes and the dimensions of space.” 

Seurat also stated, “just as a chemist separates matter, my eyes are clear prisms that break down the elements of light. Transform them in the crucible of the imagination, and give them new meaning. I am searching for a secret geometry of forms. Painting is the art of giving depth to surface.” 

Knowing very little about Seurat before, I was somewhat taken aback by his avowed pursuit of a science of art. I had thought that by the nineteenth century, and especially after the Impressionists, artists had given up the very Renaissance ambition to make painting into a science. 

Impressionism, as with modern art in general, was a conscious rebellion against the strictures of “Academy” art, the principles of which had been laid down centuries before. Seurat, who died in 1891 aged only thirty-one (of uncertain causes, but likely from a virus which also killed his young son soon after), embraced academic principles, however. 

Circus-Parade, Georges Seurat, 1887.

From a proper bourgeois family, Seurat dressed so conventionally that he was referred to by other painters as “the notary.” In another documentary about Seurat I viewed recently, one of the art historians interviewed speculated as to how, if he had lived a natural lifespan, Seurat would have affected the course of modern art. 

I think, on the other hand, Seurat would have remained an outlier even if he had not died young, as he was during his lifetime, in fact. Impressionism set out to convey precisely what the pictorial medium derived from chemistry — the photograph — simply couldn’t. 

In this way, the movement really was anti-scientific in so far as placed idiosyncratic perspective and technique at the centre of artistic endeavour. 

The post-Impressionists, on the other hand, were determined to return order and principle to painting — doing something more than “splashing paint across the canvas”, as an associate of Seurat’s is quoted in the NFB documentary. 

They were “post” in that Seurat, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cezanne and the others, didn’t reject entirely the Impressionist revolution in painting. They simply wanted to bring system and method to their predecessors’ treatment of colour and light, Seurat the foremost. 

Ultimately, however, the post-Impressionists failed in this goal, and modern art progressively rejected rationality and representation itself, during the course of the twentieth century. 

Seurat’s own quest to break down light into its constituent parts was achieved by engineers, not painters, with the invention of TV in the 1920s. 

But divisionism was the proper expression of the scientific approach to art. The inductive method separates and divides matter into its constituent parts. Seurat himself was only attempting more systematically the treatment of light and colour as pioneered by the Impressionists, whose works were intended to convey the psychological effect of a scene, instead of its literal features. 

La Chahut (The Uproar), Georges Seurat, 1890.

Near the end of the National Film Board documentary, there is a fantasy sequence in which Seurat is shown interacting with a young boy who, after transforming into an adult, is revealed to be Albert Einstein. 

An actor in voice-over recites (with a German accent) words apparently spoken by the relativity-theorist: “In reality all matter is nothing but condensed light.” Seurat is then quoted as saying, “perhaps pointillism was a way of painting atoms.” 

The scientific approach of the “notary” was confirmed by the amount of time he devoted to Sunday Afternoon and his other, later works, such as the Circus Parade (from 1887-88) or La Chahut (from 1889-90, translated into English as The Uproar, and depicting show-dancers and musicians onstage). 

Two of many sketches and studies for the Sunday Afternoon, Georges Seurat.

Whereas the Impressionists could complete a canvas in a few minutes or hours (though many Impressionist works took much longer to complete), Seurat worked intensively on Sunday Afternoon at the Isle du Grande Jatte for two years — not including the dozens of sketches and studies he took of the same scene and subjects beforehand. It is not only that placing minute strokes of paint on a canvas is in itself time-consuming. 

Seurat was attempting to get to the radicals of light, where the image has no resemblance to anything except itself. To break down any phenomenon (whether light or substance) to its digital essence, is to automatically slow down the perception of time, as it must be reconstituted in a step-by-step, serial fashion.

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